Source of book: Audiobook from the library
Well, what to say about this book? Like most Franzen novels, it is pretty long (20 discs worth…), a bit sprawling, full of difficult and nuanced people, a good bit of psychological drama, a realistic feel, and a whole lot of things going on at once.
It also hit close to home for me on several fronts, paralleling some past events in my life and also some current issues in my life.
This isn’t my first experience of Franzen, but it is my first exposure to his fiction. I previously read How to Be Alone, which struck me at the time as a truly alien experience - the experience of the cranky old white liberal was a bit different from the cranky old retrogressive white people I grew up with.
When I reviewed that book, in 2016, it was before Il Toupee went from being a punchline to being president to being the instigator of an attempt to overthrow democracy in America, so I still kinda identified as leaning right. (It is always interesting to re-read posts from years ago…) These days, I probably lean further to the left than I did back then, but also the American Right has taken such a strong lurch toward open fascism that I certainly have no wish to be associated with that movement.
It is also interesting to read that post having read a Franzen novel. I am happy to report that some of my worries about his writing have turned out to have been groundless. For example, while Franzen is a Boomer, he isn’t the “white racist old man who votes liberal because he was on that side in the 1960s” sort at all - his grasp of bias and blind spots and the nuance of character are excellent, and it shows in his writing in the best possible way. (Particularly in this book.) Second, his writing feels natural and unpretentious, and quite effective. No “complex sentences to sound literary” stuff going on here, just good, solid plotting, characterization, and description.
One thing that I did notice in one of the essays was the insistence that fiction was where our society has its discussion of nuance - where easy answers and ideology give way to complexity and humanity. And this book is full of this.
I mentioned a bit in the previous post about Franzen’s unfortunate role as poster-person for the question of female and minority representation in publishing, but I thought I would expand just a bit on that in this post, because I think it does relate to the book.
Franzen is white, male, grew up middle class, straight, and is a Boomer. It is entirely fair to point out that this demographic has been over-represented in fiction publishing for many decades. (And white males for centuries.) It is entirely appropriate to desire a more equal representation. Anyone who reads this blog knows that, although I do read plenty of old books, I make an effort to read books by women, minorities, and queer people as well.
The problem as it relates to Franzen is that he has been targeted with the “see how much attention Franzen gets” as the example of what is wrong with publishing. I believe this is unfair. I am sure I could (if you forced me) come up with a list of undeserving white male authors who get published while others languish. But Franzen is plenty deserving - he is a really good writer - and he certainly hasn’t been the driver of the regressive movement in our culture.
And yes, sometimes his writing is a bit of his generation and gender - just like contemporary writers will be recognized as being in a few decades. Alas, perfection did not peak at our present moment. All we can hope is to be part of the process of moving in the right direction.
Okay, so let’s talk about the book.
Crossroads is set in 1971 and 1972, mostly in Chicago, and centers around the Hildebrandt family. Throughout the book, the perspective changes from person to person as the plot unfolds (and as we learn the back stories for the older characters), with both parents and the three older kids having extended sections from their point of view.
Russ Hildebrandt is an associate minister in his late 40s (hey, about my age, actually), married to Marian, with four kids. Clem is in college, Becky is about to graduate, Perry is in high school, and Judson is still just a kid. (He is the one who is just kind of there - his perspective isn’t given in this book.)
But don’t let the “minister” title throw you off. Russ is an old-school hippie liberal - he marched with the Civil Rights movement, works in poverty relief with the Navajos, and was a conscientious objector during World War II - arguably the bravest time to do such a thing.
Russ married Marian, a slightly older and far more experienced woman. She has a dark past which comes out during the book.
Clem is off at college, discovers sex, and decides (for morally defensible reasons) to give up his draft deferment. He also has kind of a weirdly close relationship with Becky before he leaves for college - one might call it emotionally incestuous.
Becky is tall, attractive, and popular, but finds herself questioning everything and ending up with a very different life than she envisioned.
Perry is, well, he is perhaps the least likable character in the book. At least for me. In his defense, he has inherited some pretty heavy-duty mental illness from his mother. But he is still an amoral narcissist who gets addicted to drugs, starts selling them, and pretty much blows the family up.
There are the back stories - Marian’s is the most interesting in my opinion, but Russ’s too involves estrangement from their respective families. (That’s one bit that resonated with me a lot.) And there is the subplot of Russ being forced out of Crossroads, the youth group he founded, after things go sideways on him. Rick Ambrose, the young and charming youth minister, takes it over, and the feud between Rick and Russ dominates the emotional landscape of the Hildebrandt family.
That event was fascinating, not least because a lot of the book goes past before Franzen gradually reveals what happened - and does so from multiple perspectives. The core issue is that Russ is older, and not well in touch with younger people. Because of this, when faced with difficult situations, he tends to make bad decisions. From Clem’s point of view, Russ is trying too hard to be cool, and makes enemies. From Rick’s point of view, Russ was inappropriately revealing about his own marital troubles to the group. From Russ’s point of view, he switched assignments on the Navajo mission trip because he was asked to by the Navajos, something never adequately explained to anyone by Rick. The whole thing is really messy, and Franzen makes it clear that none of the perspectives is entirely correct.
The fallout from this is significant. Russ loses his confidence, and feels humiliated. Marian is mostly supportive, but Russ experiences this too as humiliation. His wife has to go to bat for him. Clem has formerly worshiped his dad, but sees his image of him crumble, leading to a really vicious argument. Becky, already irritated at her dad for a number of reasons, decides he is just full of shit generally.
Marian’s past comes back to haunt her too. She has never been honest with Russ about her past. Not that it helped - his Mennonite family disowned him when he married a woman who claimed to be divorced. In reality, Marian had an affair with a married man, became pregnant, got an abortion, and, in order to do so, ended up as practically the sex slave of a really creepy old man. This led to a mental breakdown and a stay in a mental institution. None of which she has ever told Russ. She ends up telling her therapist, who she is seeing on the sly, because the family can’t really afford it.
Already, I have written a lot of plot, but this is just a start. About two thirds of the book take place on a single day, December 23, and can be described as a slow motion meltdown of everyone in the family in some way. The last third is primarily about the Easter break, but some threads are followed a couple of years after that. I hate to spoil too much from there. I’ll just mention some important stuff and try not to ruin any surprises.
First, and this is apparent early in the book, both Russ and Marian end up seeking out affairs. Marian with her old married flame, and Russ with a young widow at church. It is easy to see why. They are at that age when they feel old, flabby, and boring. To return to a place where someone ardently desires you, admires you, and so on, is very tempting. Franzen is correct, however, that the fantasy is usually a lot better than cold, hard reality.
Second, one driver of the plot is an inheritance. Marian’s older sister (and there is a lot of unpleasant family dynamics here) takes Becky under her wing for a while, before dying of cancer. She leaves Becky her modest fortune, with the instructions to take a tour of Europe like Aunt Shirley had intended to do with her.
Marian and Russ do the absolute worst thing about this they could possibly do: act like the money belongs to them, not Becky. And all the guilt trips and stuff that a teen should never have to endure. I won’t give away exactly what happens, other than to say that whatever Russ and Marian get financially, it comes at the cost of their relationship with Becky and her eventual child. Ouch.
And yes, this is one bit that deeply affected me. The facts aren’t the same, of course. Nobody ever left me shit as an inheritance (and my parents will undoubtedly disinherit me.) And my estrangement with my parents didn’t become complete until my mid-40s. But there are some rhymes, so to speak.
Like Becky, I was expected to sacrifice for my parents. Their self-indulgence in joining Bill Gothard’s cult cost me a lot - meaningful access to a normal higher education, the ability to choose my career, and eventually acceptance of my wife and children. And, like Russ and Marian, my parents considered this sacrifice to be my duty to them, not generosity.
Oh, and just like Perry gets coddled throughout the book, my sister got to go to regular college, do absolutely nothing with her degree, and get unconditional acceptance by my parents, something I have never experienced.
Of course, I can tell you that I have a different personality than Becky. For one thing, I have never had the experience of popularity, so I had few actual options during my teens other than going along with whatever my parents decided for me. And also, I started out deeply religious, then deconstructed - Becky starts off atheist, then becomes increasingly Fundamentalist. I myself would likely have told my parents no if they wanted my money. But, again, never had that option.
The thing about Becky’s eventual estrangement from her parents is that I can understand exactly why she ended up there. As horrible as it was to take the money, what was worst was that Russ and Marian completely disrespect Becky’s dreams, her desires, her personhood. I hesitate to say they do not understand her, because, although that is very true, the reason they do not understand her is that they do not really wish to. They have their picture of what and who she should be, and expect her to just be that person. Even though she clearly isn’t. I think Becky ends up making unwise choices, but I can see why she did - in significant part, she was proving to herself she wasn’t who her parents planned her to be.
I feel a lot of the same feelings, although I didn’t choose to, for example, give up my education for parenthood. (That’s very gendered too, of course…) I am not who my parents fantasized I would be. And my wife is very definitely not the woman they fantasized I would marry. But no woman could ever have been that. And children are their own selves, not clay to be molded, or (god I hate this term!) “arrows in the quiver.” Children are not weapons to be turned against others, nor are they extensions of ourselves. They exist as themselves and do not owe us fealty.
I want to circle back to the religious stuff in the book too.
Franzen apparently spent his teens in a youth group like Crossroads. So did I - kind of. The early 1970s were different than the early 90s.
It is nearly impossible to imagine now - particularly those of us of a certain age - but American Christianity wasn’t always a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party. It wasn’t always retrogressive culture wars, anti-LGBTQ hate, and xenophobia.
There was a genuinely religious progressive movement back in the day. Russ’s church is active in poverty relief, leans liberal, preaches non-violence. And, in the context of Crossroads, is less a religious group than one practicing radical transparency and mutual vulnerability.
Some of this was present in the youth group I was a part of from 8th through 10th grade.
We were part of a multi-cultural church near where I lived in the San Fernando Valley. The founding pastor, the late Jack Stiles, literally built the place with his own hands back when the area still had orange groves. With time, the neighborhood changed from a white suburb to a mostly minority working-class neighborhood. Where others would have packed up and followed the white flight to the new exburbs, Pastor Stiles went with the changing demographics, embracing new music, new ideas, and multiculturalism.
In the time I was there, the youth group was trying some of the things that are in Crossroads - relationships with inner city churches and drug recovery groups, service trips to the Navajo Reservation and Mexico, neighborhood block parties, and the sort of radical intimacy that was a breath of fresh air after the phony posturing that was encouraged when we went to John MacArthur’s church (and later a small clone church led by a Master’s Seminary graduate.) (Note: not everyone, obviously. Some of my most influential people were from that era.)
In retrospect, that brief youth group experience affected me profoundly. The seeds of my eventual rejection of the Religious Right were planted then. Seeing others and listening to their experiences has a way of creating empathy in the right soil, and I feel that my frame of reference expanded dramatically during those years.
Also in retrospect, it is interesting to see what happened later. I still have friends from that church, although a lot of us have moved away to other places. From those who still know those who stayed, I learned that the church went pretty hard toward Q Anon after Pastor Stiles died and the guy who took over for him retired. That makes me sad, because there was something real there.
The youth minister who pushed the group to do all of those great things - with the personality of a Rick Ambrose - unfortunately got sideways with church leadership (in some cases, for good reason), and ended up leaving a year or so later. The sad thing to me is that he ended up getting into Christian Nationalism really heavily, went into politics, and last I saw had a minor role in the Trump administration, doing the “special privileges for christian organizations” thing.
On the other hand, the worship leader for the group has remained a really good guy. We have reconnected online, and keep in touch. He, more than anyone else, made me who I am as a worship musician. I really wish it were possible to still be doing that, but the political state of American Christianity means I remain on the sidelines as a conscientious objector.
Other stuff that was interesting: the Navajo trips. Russ’s formative experience was on the reservation as a young man. I too remember doing these trips, with building projects and stuff. And, like Russ, I had the unsolvable tension between doing the good you can and being in the role of white savior. While I would certainly not mistake Franzen’s perspective here with that of the Indigenous, he does capture white discomfort pretty well. That level of self-awareness isn’t always (or even often) seen in most church-based charity work. Particularly now, with the culture wars insisting that only the white perspective matters.
There was another scene that really haunted me. Clem has come home for Christmas, in part to announce that he is quitting college and letting himself be drafted. He goes looking for Becky, who, as I mentioned, he has a really close relationship with, only to run into his dad, who is alone with the young widow. Clem pretty much tells him off in brutal fashion. It’s an ugly scene, and you even feel bad for Russ, who is in the wrong, because of how harsh Clem is. At one point, Clem asks Russ if he even realizes how embarrassing it is to be his son.
But as much as I worry about losing the respect and love of my kids (and I think all parents do), I felt some definite emotions along with Clem. The thing is, like Clem, I used to love and admire my parents. A lot. And back in the day, just like Russ, they were good, well meaning, decent people. As I have said multiple times on this blog, if you had asked 16 year old me, I would have said they were the best parents in the world. But, well Gothard, and stuff, and I find myself 30 years later estranged from them, and unable to respect who they have chosen to become in their old age. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, and I sure didn’t expect to find myself the son of Archie Bunker and Sister Bertha-better-than-you.
So, just like Clem, discovering his father is a hypocrite who is cheating on his mom, loses his respect; I, having discovered that the parents who taught me antiracist values have chosen to go down the white christian nationalism path. It’s disheartening and embarrassing. And there is nothing I can do about it.
Although there is a lot of drama in the book, there is also plenty of humor. Poor Russ is in over his head when it comes to life. He was raised as a Mennonite, loses his relationship with his parents, has no idea how to fit in with normal culture, and gets blindsided by the blowup at Crossroads. He has no idea how to rekindle things with his wife, and doesn’t even know her history. He bumbles with his kids, saying the wrong things, and always making things worse. The obstacles he faces, while realistic, are a bit over the top sometimes, and you feel terrible for him, even though he isn’t that likable.
Being inside Perry’s head is interesting too. The whole scene at the Christmas party where Perry gets drunk, and can’t filter what he says, is pretty hilarious. It is also about the last time that he even tries to be a decent person - by the end, his mental illness and raging cocaine addiction have made him unable to see much beyond the next hit.
The best drawn character, in my opinion, is Marian. She isn’t anyone I would particularly like to be around - I don’t do well with people who are self-loathing in general, and particularly not with ones who are deeply religious. It is its own variety of narcissism, perhaps as self-medication. Her traumatic story is pretty engrossing, and definitely explains who she is and how she reacts.
At the risk of spoilers, I thought that the scene near the end where she reunites with her old flame, only to realize that he doesn’t come close to matching the fantasy she had, was excellent. It didn’t feel contrived, either. I have seen enough in my law practice to realize that this is often the case. That’s the thing about fantasies - they can never really come true. If you realize that, and just enjoy the fantasy, then it can be a good thing. But expectations will disappoint us all. Never meet your heroes, and don’t expect an affair to measure up to the fantasy.
In listening to the book, I thought of a whole lot more to say. It would be fun to discuss this book with others who have read it, so if you run across this post, feel free to chime in in the comments. There is a lot going on in the book, and so much to discuss.
The audiobook was excellent. David Pittu was the narrator, and I thought he distinguished the voices really well. Perry in particular, with his faux English accent was spot on and unmistakable.
There is an interview at the end with both Pittu and Franzen (it must have been over video, during the pandemic, judging from some audio artifacts) and that was quite enlightening. Hearing Franzen talk about the book is a real view into what he was trying to do with the book. And also the scenes he felt were a bit unrealistic (but necessary for the plot, so…) and which he felt he did best. Pittu had plenty of opinions about the book too, and it was fascinating to see where he and Franzen disagreed about how to interpret ambiguities. Franzen himself is surprised that the ambiguous ending has been interpreted multiple ways by different people. He thinks it is obvious what choice was made, but I myself could see it going either way.
I would say that the audiobook is a good way to go for this book, just because it is excellently done, and adds to the experience. Franzen’s writing also lends itself to the audiobook form, because it doesn’t jump around much, and when it does, it is clear where we are in time and place. It is good old-fashioned linear writing, and I wish a few more modern authors would use it, rather than trying to be cute with the out-of-sequence narratives.
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